RPM Recycles Parts From A Bygone Era
Brandon Prihoda is the co-owner of RPM Classic Parts in Albert Lea, Minn.
Lace Baumgartner Photography
To an untrained eye, the ‘49, ‘50 and ‘51 Chevy look pretty similar. But Brandon Prihoda, co-owner of RPM Classic Parts in Albert Lea, Minn., can point out the little differences - from the fender trim to the grill. And knowing RPM Classic Parts, it’s more than likely that Prihoda has those parts in stock. This classic parts business is the “go to” place for vehicles and parts from the 1930s to the 1960s.
RPM Classic Parts has been around since 1957 in Albert Lea, Minn., but it hasn’t always focused on the classics. Lou Ryan, and his son Mike, built the auto salvage yard up over the years, and like their competitors, carried a range of newer parts and vehicles. They were still carrying that later model range in 2000 when Prihoda, Mike’s son-in-law, was invited to join the business.
“We made the change about 12 years ago,” remembered Prihoda. “Just looking at the market, there were not many who are focused on these classic hard-to-find parts. It was a shame to see these vehicles just sitting around on farms, or those parts being sold for scrap. People need parts for the classic cars that they’re trying to restore. We wanted to save what we could.”
The change in focus shifted the company’s mix of parts - and not just the model years RPM Classic Parts carried. “If you’re a late model yard,” explained Prihoda, “the focus is on the bigger items, body parts, fenders, hoods, doors, transmissions. But if you’re a classic yard, you save everything, door handles, crank handles, hood ornaments and even nuts and bolts. Because, if you’re restoring a classic car, you want everything to be original. You don’t want to put on aftermarket reproduction parts.”
After making the commitment to classic vehicles, RPM Classic Parts found that its customer base also changed. “Body shops and dealerships want new parts, because they’re focused on repairing what most people are driving now,” said Prihoda. “It’s the guy who’s restoring a car who wants these parts. Even sometimes when there’s a shop involved, the shops don’t usually have time to go and look for parts. So customers are doing the searches and bringing the parts to the shop.”
Mike and Prihoda procure the parts for RPM Classic Parts from various sources, including collectors. “People could have 10 to 20 vehicles on their farm, in their backyard and garage,” explained Prihoda. “We’ve traveled to Minnesota, Iowa, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin and Illinois to get vehicles. A few years ago, we even went down to Kansas. A lot of times, we’ll buy from customers who have bought from us in the past, when they’ve decided they just don’t have time to restore a car.”
It’s a labor intensive process to pull the parts off these cars, according to Prihoda. “Not only are they well made, but they’ve usually been sitting for so long and haven’t been touched,” he said. Once they’re off, the tricky part is identifying the parts by all of the model years they fit. “With some of these older cars,” said Prihoda, “sometimes we have to do some research to know what years the parts were the same.”
Luckily, the majority of RPM Classic Parts’ 12 employees rebuild their own classic cars, so they know from experience what interchanges work. “This is what they do for fun outside of work,” said Prihoda. “They know what works, what doesn’t and what might. They’ll say this part might not be a direct fit but you can modify it.”
Once parts are cleaned, checked over and inventoried, they’re listed on eBay. “When we started on eBay, what really helped was that we’d show pictures of the car or truck along with the part,” said Prihoda. “Invariably someone would see the vehicle and say, ‘Oh yeah, I need other stuff, too.’”
But Prihoda warns that if you stick to RPM Classic Parts’ eBay listings, you’re missing out. “We have 500 vehicles onsite and we can get 10 to 20 vehicles in a week,” he explained. “That’s why it’s always a good idea to call. Because chances are that we have it, even if it’s not up online yet.”
The business ships 90 percent of its parts, even the big ones. Those are shipped in crates built by the staff. “We’ll build custom pallets for everything we ship out, and fully enclosed wooden crates,” said Prihoda. “Just a few days ago, we shipped out a Chevy truck frame that way.”
RPM Classic Parts ships 10 to 15 percent of its parts out of the country. Shipments have gone to Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Russia, Malta, Brazil, Germany and England, and that’s just a partial list. Overseas customers are responsible for customs fees and shipping costs. “It can double the amount of the item they’re buying,” noted Prihoda, “but these customers really cannot get the parts locally. There are simply no auto salvage yards in their countries that deal with American classic cars.”
RPM Classic Parts itself does not deal with classic cars and parts beyond the 1960s. “As you get to the late 1960s and newer, the amount of salt on the roads has affected the sheet metal,” he said. “We brought those parts in at first and everything was rusted, so we just don’t carry them.”
The weather is perhaps the only thing that slows this Minnesota-based business down - just a bit. “It affects us in buying new inventory,” said Prihoda. “People aren’t messing around with bringing cars and trucks in the snow. But we still pull parts in below freezing temps. We plow our way to a vehicle but then we’ll bring the car or truck inside to work on it.”
As for the most popular part they sell, Prihoda couldn’t choose just one. “It depends on what’s being restored,” he said. “The amazing thing is that there are still so many parts out there from the ’30s through the ’60s. That’s good news for our customers.”